Horror mastermind Stephen King describes the writing process as an act of unearthing a buried fossil. According to King, your story is already there in the ground, you just have to find it and carefully dig it out. One of my favorite parts of the writing process is discovering the story and the characters. This is one advantage to not writing with a heavy plot already planned out. Because I am writing a fairly simple straightforward romance story I did some loose outlining and some brief character sketches prior to the start of National Novel Writing Month. However, NaNoWriMo day one already unearthed wonderful, surprise treasures for me.
Per my pre-November outline, I had started my story with the trio of Rose Gluck, a nineteen year old, driving in the car with her grandmother Imogene and her grandmother’s best friend Viola. Halfway through writing this it occurred to me that they are not in car at all, but rather taking a break by a country creek. Because this is NaNoWriMo and every malformed word counts, instead of reaching for the delete key and nuclear bombing my opening, I typed a bracketed note to myself:
[Rework scene start with Rose wading in a creek while her grandmother and friend sit at the edge talking.]
This change is rather small and potentially didn’t carry much weight in the scheme of things, but I bring it up because it dovetailed into a bigger surprise that followed:
The trio loaded into the grandmother’s 1983 Pontiac Safari station wagon taking care not to brush their skirts up against the wood sidewalls covered with orange back road dust. In the front seat Rose struggled to put her pantyhose back on over her wet legs, falling back into the seat with her dress hiked up past her knees.
“Have some modesty child,” her grandmother scolded.
“Grandma please,” Rose protested playfully. ”There isn’t anyone within ten miles who can see me.”
“The angels can see,” her grandmother said glancing up to the heavens with fear and reverence.
“Then I hope they enjoy the show; they’ve seen worse whenever I get dressed,” Viola Whitecell joked. ”Rose, what I’d give to have legs as thin as yours.”
This is one of those time where I unearthed something neat. The supporting characters of the conservative grandmother and her more liberal, blunt friend are about as I imagined them. However, my main character Rose had a considerable surprise in store for me. Going into the month I thought I knew my main character Rose. She was supposed to be shy, awkward, and reserved. However in this first scene she did something revealing, showing little regard for personal modesty as she struggled to put on her pantyhose in sight of heaven and earth. In her response to her grandmother she has a bit of unexpected pluckiness giving a glimpse that she might have a little bit of fire lurking beneath her surface. Suddenly this character became so much more interesting to me than the shallow version of her I envisioned in my pre-NaNoWriMo character sketch.
This all started with the unassuming detour to a creek. The creek helped to place the country setting better than a mere car ride, but beyond that it set up this new picture of Rose. Without wet legs there is no struggle to get dressed, no pluckiness, and no fire. This is one of the benefits that comes from deviating from your outline when it goes off the road and down a creek.
I encourage you to look for similar finds as you carefully extract your story from the earth. Have you made any unexpected discoveries in your own stories? Please share them!